Serbia marked the borders of friendship with Russia

For several years in a row, the country has not only been trying to prove its leadership in the Western Balkans, but also to find its place in the global geostrategic game. Serbia balances, sometimes rather riskily, between the world’s major players. Belgrade’s foreign policy is often described as a constant struggle between Russian and European vectors. However, there are at least four of these vectors.

We have already talked about the supposedly existing “historical friendship”, some kind of “mutual assistance” and mutual “love” between Serbia and Russia. Thus, the Serbian authorities may have forgotten (or may not know) that Russia supported international sanctions against Serbia during the war at the end of the last century. Why remember the mistakes of “beloved” if she gives such a favorable discount on gas (according to available data, the price of Russian gas for Serbia is somewhere between 270 and 420 dollars). This price will continue to remain quite attractive (at least the Kremlin promises so), but with one condition – Belgrade should not join the anti-Russian sanctions.

In addition, the Russian Federation supports the transformation of Serbia into an armed monster of the region. In 2017-2022, Russia sold and handed over free of charge to the Serbian armed forces and police about a hundred units of tanks, armored vehicles, helicopters, aircraft (though most of them were used). Therefore, Serbian Interior Minister Aleksander Vulin, one of Putin’s biggest supporters in Serbia, can afford not to notice the “Z” sign on a Serbian policeman’s helmet.

Naturally, in Serbia, pro-Russian symbols are freely sold and molded wherever possible. But the policeman is in the service of the state, which at the UN condemned the Russian special operation in Ukraine. And Vulin is not just a minister. He is one of those who are in the inner circle of President Vucic, and until recently served as the country’s defense minister. It was Vulin who expanded the cooperation between the General Staffs of Russia and Serbia, which even worked out a plan for a joint military operation against Kosovo.

Moreover, this is not just a person close to the president. They even say in Belgrade: what is in Vučić’s head is in Vulin’s tongue… And also, he is the first Serbian politician who, in December 2020, while holding the post of Minister of Defense, officially proclaimed the concept of a “Serbian world”, which became a kind of remake of an old idea “Greater Serbia”. If we discard the details, then this idea has similarities with the “Russian world” – “we will protect all Serbs, wherever they live.” In this case, only neighboring Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and North Macedonia are meant. More power is not enough.

If you try to determine what underlies the Moscow direction of Belgrade’s foreign policy, then this can include a fake myth about the centuries-old friendship of the two peoples, energy, weapons, the “Serbian-Russian world”, the Orthodox Church. How can one not recall here the well-known expert in the region, Orhan Dragash, who noted that Russia has never been either a partner or a defender for Serbia – Moscow only uses Belgrade for its own purposes.

Energy alternative: Ankara – Athens – Baku

Energy resources are the main basis for cooperation here. But, of course, there are also investments in the Serbian economy, and the modernization of its army, and the development of tourism. And yet, energy carriers are, so to speak, “an untouchable god.” Even seven years before Russia began its gas blackmail – in 2015 – Belgrade began to think about finding new suppliers of gas and oil.

All these years, Serbian specialists have quietly studied the existing opportunities and found out the most attractive ones: Azerbaijan, which is ready to supply gas and is interested in it; Athens, which will provide an opportunity to buy liquefied gas in its ports; Turkey, where you can get fuel from the Middle East.

And just recently, several representatives of the Serbian authorities admitted that they are actively looking not only for alternative gas suppliers to Russia, but are also preparing to completely abandon it in the near future. But what about “eternal friendship” and the Serbian-Russian world? And in any way – this is propaganda for the population. And gas, as it is fashionable to say today, is just business, nothing else. Although such a business can be an important step to change friends and “worlds”.

However, there are several problematic aspects here.

First, it cannot be ruled out that the cost of “non-Russian” gas will be somewhat higher, and this will cause hesitation in the final decision to refuse Russian gas;

Secondly, Serbia re-exports Russian gas to the EU countries. It is doubtful that she will refuse to buy cheaper gas from Russia in exchange for more expensive gas from other sources. After all, this will lead to a decrease in margins and a reduction in profits, in which the authorities are not interested.

Thirdly, Serbia is not eager to be on the periphery of the European gas transportation system and depend only on the increasingly risky Turkish and Balkan flows with Russian gas.

Therefore, the active development of national gas pipelines and accession to the European gas pipeline system begins here. There are already many people who want to invest in such projects. After all, Vucic at the end of last year proclaimed an ambitious goal – to provide gas to every home.

At the same time, Belgrade is beginning to realize that the losses from cooperation with Russia are beginning to exceed the profits. And this is already beginning to affect cooperation with the Russian Federation.

China with many unknowns

Here, the focus is on the One Belt, One Road project, China’s global initiative, which has been implemented since 2013 and will be completed in 2049, the centennial anniversary of the proclamation of the PRC.

If we discard the diplomatic vocabulary, then this project should ensure the expansion of China into different regions of the world – not only trade and economic, but also political. Serbia was on its way to Central and Eastern Europe, which turned out to be beneficial for both countries.

True, the trade turnover between Serbia and China is not growing very dynamically – from $1.48 billion in 2011 to $3.6 billion in 2021. But Serbia sees the PRC as a state that allows diversifying sources of arms acquisition and investment, as well as improving transport infrastructure.

Thanks to China, Belgrade has the opportunity to reduce dependence on Russia and painlessly refuse Russian proposals. For example, a few years ago, Belgrade decided to purchase a UAV for the army and turned first of all to its “old friend” – Moscow. But in the end I bought them in distant China, since the Chinese ones are more modern, cheaper and offered on more favorable terms. Of course, the matter was not limited to drones alone, and Chinese weapons (as, by the way, from the EU states) began to enter Serbia in increasing numbers. Nothing personal just business.

A significant political propaganda victory was won by China, which was the first to supply vaccines against COVID-19 to Serbia and sent a team of doctors to Serbia. Then Vucic said that it was China that saved Serbia from the disease – and this is in a situation where the volumes of vaccines from Western European countries were much larger, and Moscow even organized the production of its Sputnik in Serbia.

An indicative moment is that almost nothing is known about Chinese loans: how many of them, what size, cost, terms of provision. One can only assume that some simply leave in order to ensure socio-economic stability. An example is the recent acquisition by China of two enterprises – a metallurgical plant in Smederevo (although friends from the Russian Federation were so eager to buy it!) and the Bor copper mine.

The employees of these enterprises did not receive wages for a long time and the tension grew more and more. Therefore, the purchase of both enterprises by Chinese businessmen made it possible to solve many social issues.

But the acquisition of Serbian enterprises by the Chinese gives rise to another problem – after the change of ownership, they become closed territories, into which Chinese and Vietnamese workers are brought almost uncontrollably, and the Serbian authorities do not know whether they are there by choice and work under contracts, or in fact they are prisoners. Serbia has many similar examples of the formation by China of a kind of economic foothold (already with elements of production).

Growing dependence allows China to feel free in Serbia. It got to the point that President Vucic made an unprecedented diplomatic step – before the official presentation of his credentials, he personally met the new ambassador of the PRC at the airport.

EU: integration without love

The Serbian president dreams of bringing the country to the European Union, and a lot has already been done along this path. Since 2012, Serbia has had the status of a candidate country for membership and is negotiating the adaptation of domestic legislation to EU law.

Until recently, Serbia and the EU were convinced that the country could become a full member in 2025 – but now this confidence has disappeared, as there are signs of a rollback and suspension of necessary reforms. The rhetoric of Serbian politicians has also changed: accusations are heard against the EU that Belgrade is allegedly required to do the impossible – to join anti-Russian sanctions and resume negotiations with Kosovo.

During the visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Serbia in June this year, Vučić anticipated the meeting with trepidation – and he was right. During the “heated discussion” he rather incorrectly rejected the mentioned requirements, while Scholz emphasized that these are mandatory conditions for EU membership. But Vučić said that Belgrade “has a different point of view and a special relationship with Russia.” As always, Vulin went the farthest, in an interview he said that the country could refuse EU membership and move closer to Russia. Such statements cannot be called anything other than blackmail and speculation. Vučić, on the one hand, wants to continue to receive so far cheap Russian gas, and on the other hand, to have access to European funds.

Such an unprincipled policy irritates many. The European Parliament even made a proposal to “freeze” negotiations with Serbia if it does not change its pro-Russian position and resume negotiations with Kosovo. And the leaders of the European Commission noted that Vucic can continue to implement the Putin model, but he must decide on the direction of the country’s development and stop pretending that he is moving towards EU membership.

So what is the real foreign policy of Serbia?

It seems that President Vučić’s pro-Russian statements are motivated by a desire to keep “cheap gas” and not join the sanctions against the Russian Federation for some time, which will allow him to avoid destabilization in the country and fight for the status of a regional leader. The preservation of Serbia’s European integration course confirms Vučić’s interest in such projects as the “Small Schengen”, “Open Balkans”, the formation of regional customs, economic, transport markets, which not only strengthen regional cooperation, but also contribute to further European integration of the entire region.

It is also impossible not to pay attention to his promise on the eve of the June EU summit that some decisions to intensify European integration will be announced in the fall. Moreover, the development of the Serbian economy largely depends on trade and economic relations and investments from EU member states and much less on Russia.

The volume of trade between Serbia and the European Union in 2021 amounted to 59.3 billion euros, which is 29.8% more than in 2020. And with Russia, the volumes are equal to 2.8 billion euros – an increase of only 13.1%.

Russia ranks fifth or sixth among Serbia’s trading partners, after Germany, Italy, Bosnia, Romania and Hungary. Over the past ten years, the volume of EU investments in the Serbian economy amounted to 3.4 billion euros, China – 1.6 billion euros, Russia – 1.4 billion euros.

The EU and its individual member states are investing in the development and modernization of transport infrastructure, industry (in particular, automotive), in the development of public services, education, management, the creation of modern technologies, and the like. Employment of the population and social stability are ensured through the creation of new enterprises.

For example, in German companies in Serbia, the number of employees has increased from about fifteen thousand to eighty thousand in almost ten years, with the prospect of attracting up to one hundred thousand employees.

At one time, a Montenegrin official I knew described the foreign policy of the northern neighbor as follows: “to be masters in the Western Balkans and be friends with major world players without promising anything to anyone.” However, Belgrade has less and less room for such a policy.

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