Alexander Pivovarenko, PhD in History, Senior Scientific Fellow at the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences
May 5, Vyacheslav Volodin, the State Duma’s Speaker, paid a significant visit to Serbia for working negotiations with President-Elect Aleksandar Vučić, acting Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, President of the National Assembly Maja Gojkovic, Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Irinej and other officials.
The parliamentary delegation’s trip came at a difficult time. Montenegro’s accession to NATO and internal political changes in Macedonia are reconfiguring the military and political landscape of the region. All the events are unfolding amid a massive information campaign mounted by the mass media and Western pundits capitalizing on the issue of Russian influence in the Balkans, with yet another information attack being launched on the day of Volodin’s visit. Moreover, Russia’s relations with Montenegro have reached their lowest point over the past year. In its turn, Serbia is completing the phase of consolidation of Vučić’s regime. The agenda includes the creation of a new government, which may require new parliamentary elections. It is noteworthy that the President-Elect, however, fails to command total popular support. At the same time, Vučić is singled out for allegations and fierce criticism for embracing Euro-Atlantic integration. When it comes to Russia’s assets and liabilities in the Balkans, Volodin’s stay in Serbia, therefore, was of particular importance.
Yet Russian-Serbian ties represent a silver lining in a gloomy regional picture. For instance, Aleksandar Vučić even described the current state of affairs as “the best” in contemporary history. Russia’s officials emphasized inherently friendly relations between the two countries and Serbia’s tender approach to shared ancestry and historical memory.
However, it is necessary to determine real intentions and possible prospects lying behind solemn statements. In this context, Vyacheslav Volodin’s announcement that “today’s relations meet Russia’s and Serbia’s popular demands” attracts much attention. What do the demands deal with?
As of now, Belgrade is pursuing diplomatic and military-technological interests. Apart from praising modern military supplies, all Serbian officials highlighted Russia’s stance on Kosovo. Specific hard-headed assessments behind all the pronouncements are conditional upon Serbia balancing among Brussels, Washington, Moscow, its neighbors and own population. Russia’s attitude towards such sensitive issues as a veto on Kosovo’s UNESCO membership and on the 2015 UN resolution condemning the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as a “crime of genocide” allows one to reconcile various successful initiatives with the triumph of Serbian diplomacy and to mitigate the negative impact of Belgrade’s recent concessions. Russia’s supplies of state-of-the-art technologies will facilitate Serbia’s military modernization, which is propelled by NATO’s military and organizational activity in Central and South-Eastern Europe over the last three years. The Russian Railways’ efforts to modernize the railways are expanding Serbia’s transit capacity, which serves the country’s economic interests, as well as benefits the EU seeking to develop the transregional transit system.
The military equipment supplies, in particular the MiG-29 Fulcrum dispatched from Russia and Belarus, advantages Serbia over its neighbors, in particular Croatia, which can hardly afford its own air force. At the same time, Serbia, declaring its political neutrality, refrains from revisionism and is susceptible to Brussels’ initiatives, implemented by both the EU and NATO. Tellingly, Mr. Vučić met with Catherine Ashton, former High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, right after the negotiations with Volodin, and the EU flag was raised above the National Assembly building on the same day.
Obviously, Belgrade regards relations with Russia from an extremely pragmatic viewpoint, with emphasis on military and diplomatic ties. According to the poll carried out by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy in March 2017, only 32% of the citizens would support the country’s accession to the EAEU at a referendum, while 22% would oppose it. Whereas 48% of the respondents were satisfied with the current level of cooperation, only 23% wanted a political union. At the same time, the attitude toward NATO remains unsympathetic and reserved, with 64% to 73% saying no to Serbia’s accession to NATO at a referendum. They also demonstrated loyalty towards the EU, with 43% to 47% favoring Serbia’s membership in the EU. It must be acknowledged, however, that if the issue is really put on the agenda, the referendum is unlikely to be held. Take, for instance, Montenegro and other Balkan countries which have joined the NATO ranks.
Economic cooperation with Russia may seem of little interest to Serbia. Today, bilateral trade has nearly halved compared with the pre-crisis level. According to the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, trade now stands $2.46 billion while in 2008 it equaled $4.07 billion. As the statistics for 2014-2016 show, it does not seem to be steadily recovering. Brussels’ pressure exerted on EU candidates can account for that, as the Union recommended refraining from increased exports to Russia as early as in August 2014. Moreover, there emerged another challenge. Third parties which backed the anti-Russian sanctions regime, including Poland and Montenegro, are re-exporting through Serbia. As a result, the potential of the free trade agreement has not been untapped, the Russian delegation noted.
In sum, even though a need for stronger Russian-Serbian relations still exists, certain challenges related to Brussels’ policy and the changing geostrategic situation in the Balkans impede substantial progress. The limits to the potential of intergovernmental interaction became apparent after the Declaration on Strategic Partnership signed on May 24, 2013. A closer inter-parliamentary dialogue can offer a way forward. Increased interaction between specialized parliamentary commissions can result in new initiatives, in particular for small- and medium-sized businesses, which will contribute to cooperation between Serbia and Russian regions. It may become a driving force for Russian-Serbian relations for the years to come.