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Moscow is wary of Belgrade’s Balkan Balancing Act

Serbia is attempting to set out some red lines in its relations with Russia. But can it still do so while maintaining its uneasy balance between great powers, asks Yulia Petrovskaya.

A couple of weeks before a planned meeting between Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Sochi on December 4, a full-blown “spy scandal” erupted between the two countries. The scandal has become an unwelcome reminder of the real contradictions in relations between Russia and Serbia, giving observers new grounds to argue about their future development. Vučić, who actively plays on Russophile sentiments in Serbia to further his political goals, has recently tried to draw clearer red lines in Serbia’s relationship with Moscow. And while it seems that the potential for rapprochement between the two countries has been largely exhausted, Moscow is not giving up its efforts to strengthen its influence with its traditional Balkan ally.

When footage of a possible attempt by a Russian citizen to recruit a Serbian official was broadcast by the media, Aleksandar Vučić confirmed the fact publicly. However, Vučić only provided information concerning the Russian participant in this “special operation,” who is assumed to be Grigory Kleban, a former employee of the Russian embassy who is no longer in Serbia. Vučić did not speak in any detail about the Serbian citizen. Nevertheless, in his comments about this “spy story” (which, it turned out, had taken place a year ago), Vučić attempted to shield Vladimir Putin from the resulting flak, stressing that “[Putin] was obviously not aware of this operation.”

Given that the Serbian authorities are not usually quite so frank in such cases, many observers were surprised at the speed with which Belgrade officially confirmed the authenticity of the footage. The official confirmation was particularly surprising given the video’s ability to harm Russia’s image in Serbia.

Although some experts are now arguing about the long-term sustainability of the “special ties” between Moscow and Belgrade, others claim that this scandal could even come in handy for the Kremlin. After all, Moscow is struggling to counteract Serbia’s plans for European integration. Therefore, the greater the number of scandals, the less trust the European Union might have in Belgrade, thus postponing a Russian ally’s eventual entry into the EU.

The line taken by Russian officialdom and state media is that nobody and nothing will be able to cast a pall over the summit on December 4, nor over Russian-Serbian relations in general. “We are well aware that there are certain parties who would like to cast a pall over this visit in advance. We are convinced that these parties will not succeed, and that the visit will be meaningful, productive, and once again demonstrate that the relationship between Russia and Serbia is one of partners,” said the Kremlin’s representative Dmitry Peskov.

At the same time, a clear warning has been sent to Belgrade to signal that it cannot be permitted to officially confirm such sensitive stories. “All issues that give cause for concern between states must be resolved in a civilised manner through the appropriate channels,” said Maria Zakharova, spokesperson of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ministry has stressed that Moscow will regard any publication of such stories in media outlets as provocations. In fact, the word “provocation” appeared seven times in the ministry’s brief reaction to the issue.

Moscow’s irritation is understandable. This scandal testifies to another failure of its secret services, even if its repercussions are not as serious as the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. This would appear to be the second publicly known example of such sloppy work in Serbia. In 2016, it was the Serbian authorities who helped their Montenegrin counterparts establish the role of Russian citizens in an attempt to seize power by force.

It is worth remembering the fact that the main defendants in that case were Eduard Shishmakov, who had previously ended up on the Interpol wanted list under the surname Shirokov, and Vladimir Popov, whose surname investigators established to be Moiseev. This May, both men were sentenced in absentia to 15 and 12 years’ imprisonment respectively on charges of attempts to commit an act of terrorism. Alongside the two Russians, the sentence also concerned another 12 people, including the leaders of the Democratic Bloc, a Montenegrin opposition movement which has established close ties with the Russian authorities in recent years.

In October 2016, Aleksandar Vučić informed reporters that several people had been detained in Serbia, on suspicion of preparing “illegal acts” against the authorities of neighbouring Montenegro. Vučić emphasised that there was a “foreign element,” but did not directly name Russia as such. Media later reported that several Russian citizens had left Serbia.

Three years on, the Serbian authorities have made another bungled operation public. That decision directly concerns Serbia’s national security. One can argue about who precisely leaked the video footage from last year or what their motives were, but what is clear is that it happened at quite a favourable time for Moscow in its relations with Belgrade. In recent months, bilateral contacts have intensified noticeably. In October, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Belgrade, and was soon followed by Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Serbia’s head of government Ana Brnabić later visited Moscow to sign a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, a move of great importance to Moscow. Furthermore, at the end of October joint military exercises were held in Serbia, featuring the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system and the Pantsir-S missile battery.

This was the first instance where the S-400 system was tested in military exercises beyond Russia’s borders. The fact that this took place in Serbia, under NATO’s nose and in a region nearly entirely under the control of the western military alliance, also has important symbolic value.

Meanwhile, Brussels and Washington do not hide their discontent with Belgrade’s close contact to Moscow. Serbia is routinely called upon to bring its foreign policy in line with that of the European Union. Belgrade also regularly hears negative assessments from its western partners concerning Russian influence in the Balkans; that Moscow is attempting to undermine Serbia’s cooperation with western countries, destabilise the region, and stymie European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

But it is Serbia’s military and technological cooperation with Russia which raises the most concern among the Kremlin’s adversaries. Recently, Vučić even had to explain that despite his interest in the S-400 system, he was unable to purchase them from Russia due to a lack of funds.

In light of this, the possibility has been raised that the recent “spy scandal” was devised as a warning to Vučić, in order to prevent any further rapprochement with Moscow. Following the scandal, Vučić set out to reiterate his foreign policy priorities, openly suggesting that Moscow would not be given everything on a silver platter. “We will not change our policy towards Russia. We regard it as a brotherly, friendly country and will continue our cooperation in all areas; however in terms of intelligence activities we will defend our country,” said the Serbian president.

When it comes to this “spy story,” Vučić, in his own words, has only one question for his Russian friends: why? After all, Serbia did not impose any sanctions against Russia. Serbia never voted against the Russian Federation at international fora nor threatened bilateral relations in any way. But when the Serbian leader protests that “there is no logic to any of this,” he is of course being disingenuous. There is still some logic.

Vučić is not the Kremlin’s ideal Serbian leader. He is not seen in Moscow as a reliable conduit for advancing Russian interests, rather as the only available partner for Russia. But from Moscow’s point of view, he does have some advantages. Importantly, he openly sympathises with Serbia’s nationalist and anti-western political forces. These include the Dveri and Zavjetnici movements, which oppose European integration and any cooperation with NATO. Unlike the Serbian government, they regard Crimea as part of Russia.

In comparison with other countries in the region, Serbian politics may seem to be pro-Russian. That makes Vučić a rare politician, ready to emphasise (at least to Russian audiences) the supremacy of Vladimir Putin over other world leaders. On the other hand, Vučić’s Russophilia is as ostentatious as it is superficial. When talking to Brussels and Washington, he is just as eager to stress that his policies are not pro-Kremlin. As soon as the ink had dried on a treaty with the Eurasian Economic Union, Vučić reassured western partners that it would cease to be legally binding from the moment Serbia joined the European Union.

So if we leave aside the issues of Russian gas, shared Orthodox heritage, and arguments to the tune of “even Ivan the Terrible’s grandmother was a Serb,” it turns out that the Russian and Serbian authorities have starkly different views on their respective places in the world today.

To the Kremlin’s irritation, Belgrade’s commitment to non-alignment with military alliances does not necessarily mean distancing itself from NATO. Vučić consciously avoids using words such as “aggressor” and “adversary” to refer to the latter, despite Serbia’s complicated history with the alliance. Moreover, unlike Moscow, Vučić does not believe that NATO expansion in the Balkans really poses such a threat; Belgrade itself has an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO. In recent years, Serbia has signed at least five cooperation agreements with the alliance, all of which are enshrined in separate laws.

Despite the mutual compliments Belgrade and Moscow heap on each other in public, Serbia is far from an easy partner for Moscow. This is why the potential for rapprochement has largely been exhausted. The “red lines” are most clearly drawn when it comes to issues of national security. Sensitive topics include Belgrade’s reluctance to grant diplomatic immunity to employees of the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre in Niš. The Serbian authorities have shied away from taking such a step, not wanting to jeopardise relations with their partners in Brussels and Washington, which suspect that this humanitarian centre has far from humanitarian ambitions.

Despite stories such as the latest “spy scandal,” Serbia remains Russia’s main economic and political partner in the Balkans. It is the country on which Moscow pins its hopes for strengthening its influence and its energy policy towards the region. Russian investments in the Serbian economy have already exceeded four billion dollars, while mutual trade turnover has already reached about two billion dollars a year. Meanwhile, Moscow’s representatives have not yet been able to make a convincing case to their counterparts in Belgrade that they will gain nothing from joining the European Union, a hard sell given that the EU already accounts for more than 60% of Serbia’s foreign trade.

Therefore, there are no compelling reasons to expect Belgrade to distance itself from NATO. Among other things, Serbia has an interest in guaranteeing the security of ethnic Serbs living in breakaway Kosovo. The solution to that issue depends primarily on Washington and NATO, and to a much lesser extent on Moscow, which refused to establish a military presence in the Balkans back in 2003.

Questions of regional integration and security will remain a controversial subject in the Balkans in the years to come. Moscow has no reason to fear that Serbia will join the European Union or NATO before a peaceful settlement to the Kosovo dispute and a normalisation of relations with the Kosovar authorities. A bilateral agreement between Belgrade and Pristina is likely to be reached within the next year or two. And even if it is, such an outcome would not mean the automatic acceleration of integration processes in the Balkans; it would simply mean that a major obstacle to Serbia’s accession to the EU would have been removed.

In fact, the best thing for Russian-Serbian relations would be for Moscow to cease perceiving all and any attempts to integrate Serbia into the “western world” as a blow to its own prestige, and a betrayal by a “brotherly nation.”

Photo: Scanpix