SERBIA: SITTING BETWEEN TWO CHAIRS
While negotiating for the EU membership, Serbia continues to look eastward. What message the visit of the Russian President Putin to Serbia at the beginning of 2019 sends to the West?
The President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin visited the Republic of Serbia on January 17th this year. During his first official visit to the country since 2014, Putin and the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić exchanged gifts, signed bilateral agreements, and shared desires of a strong alliance and bilateral partnership between the two countries in the future.
The Russian President was welcomed warmly in the Serbian capital Belgrade by tens of thousands of Serbians, waving Russian and Serbian flags and openly expressing their affinity to Russia, largely due to the fact that Russia still does not recognize the Republic of Kosovo and the historical partnership between the countries.
While there are reports of pro-Russian supporters being bussed explicitly for the visit of Putin, it is certain that other Serbian citizens from all sides of the political spectrum have been rallying for several weeks against the Serbian President and his attempts to centralize power in his own hands by influencing both media and opposition.
While the Serbian and Russian connection is gaining strength, Serbia's Euro-Atlantic course remains uncertain. With the accession of Montenegro and the pending accession of North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in NATO and the general course of the countries from the Western Balkans, Serbia remains as the last bastion of potentially high Russian influence amongst the Balkans.
The two countries are growing closer – their historical, Eastern Orthodox and economic ties, such as the oil and gas sectors of Serbia, and the military donations of Russia to Serbia raise suspicion in regards to Serbia's Euro-Atlantic accession strategy. The relationship between Serbia and Russia could be detrimental for Serbia's European Union accession talks, which could prove to be a bad political and economic decision for Serbia, since the European Union is its biggest trade partner.
The intents of Serbia also have direct influence on Bosnia and Herzegovina's chances of joining NATO – Republika Srpska has historically opposed the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina's accession plans and will further continue to do so if Serbia turns away from the organization.
Serbia's message to the international community is unclear – the disconnect between Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Serbian PM Ana Brnabić regarding the country's future is harmful to the strategic interests of Serbia, Euro-Atlantic and Russian-oriented alike. The strengthening of Russia-Serbia relations and the visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in late September 2019 are worrisome for the country's European course, which is the official end-game of the country's politics.
Author: Martin Stoyanov