West gains advantage as it vies with Russia for influence in Serbia
By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) – A tentative, EU-brokered deal between Serbia and Kosovo this week to normalise relations marks a quiet victory for the West as it vies with Russia for influence in Belgrade.
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago, pro-Moscow sentiment has spilled into Serbia’s streets. T-shirts with the letter Z, a symbol of Russia’s campaign, are sold as souvenirs while far-right groups openly tout support for Russia.
President Aleksandar Vucic, trying to pull off a tricky balancing act between Serbia’s deep cultural and religious ties with Russia on the one hand and European Union ambitions and a NATO partnership on the other, has done little to counter the agitation out of fear of losing popular support.
But beyond the pro-Russian noise, the West is making low-key strides toward expanding trade ties with Serbia, reducing its reliance on Russian energy and defusing tensions with Kosovo, its former, mainly ethnic Albanian southern province.
For more than two decades, the Kremlin has been Serbia’s big power ally in opposing first Kosovo’s 1998-99 popular uprising and then its 2008 independence. Ending the tense Serbia-Kosovo standoff, a condition of both states’ potential EU membership, would remove much of Moscow’s leverage over Belgrade.
“Russia’s overall actions and aim in relations with Serbia are to keep it out of NATO and the EU,” said Maxim Samorukov, a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Loath to alienate the EU, Belgrade has condemned Russia’s invasion at the United Nations and other international forums, recognised Ukraine’s pre-war borders, sent humanitarian and infrastructural aid to Kyiv, and welcomed refugees from the conflict, both Ukrainians and Russians.
However, Belgrade’s failure to join Western sanctions against Moscow has drawn criticism. Last month, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said that while Serbia had made progress in EU accession negotiations, Brussels required more.
“It seems … that the level of alignment with common foreign and defence policies of the European Union, hence the introduction of sanctions on the Russian Federation, is a condition above all conditions,” she told reporters.
Nearly 80% of Serbs oppose sanctions against Russia, a 2022 poll by Belgrade-based Demostat found, mainly because of the sanctions and isolation imposed in the 1990s on Belgrade over its role in the wars over federal Yugoslavia’s break-up.
A separate CRTA poll found 61% felt Belgrade should preserve good relations with Moscow even at the cost of EU ties. Another, government-sponsored poll showed 43% of Serbs would vote for EU membership and 32% against it.
Given such divided public opinion, Vucic’s strategy is to avoid insulting Moscow and reaffirm good relations “while taking gradual steps to detach Serbia from Russia in various aspects from the economy to security cooperation,” Samorukov said.
It’s not just a matter of politics.
Serbia has long relied almost entirely on cheap Russian gas while its main oil producer NIS is owned by Russia’s Gazprom and Gazpromneft.
But here too, a quiet shift is underway.
Serbia stopped importing Russian crude oil last year in line with EU sanctions, switching mainly to Iraqi supplies, and it is working with Bulgaria on the construction of a gas pipeline that would carry natural and liquefied gas from Greece and Turkey.
Belgrade will still need Russian gas but it is unlikely Moscow would cut off supplies, according to Sasa Djogovic, an analyst with the Institute for Market Research.
“(Moscow) will not risk such a drastic step as it might then lose popularity in Serbia,” Djogovic told Reuters.
While Russia remains Serbia’s fourth-largest trade partner – behind Germany, Hungary and China, accounting for 4.1% of Serbia’s total foreign exports and 7.5% of total imports in 2022, overall the EU is its biggest investor and benefactor.
Serbia mainly exports agricultural and consumer products to Russia, as well as timber and tyres but “would not suffer a lot” if it joined sanctions against Moscow, Djogovic said, as it would easily find alternative markets for its goods.
The war in Ukraine, and Serbia’s cooperation with NATO just short of membership, are fraying Belgrade’s traditional military ties with Moscow as well.
U.S. and EU sanctions mean Serbia can no longer send its fighter jets or helicopters, based on ex-Soviet technology, to Russia for overhauls, nor purchase new weapons from Russia.
After procuring helicopters made by Airbus and surface-to-air missiles from France’s Mistral, Belgrade is also looking to purchase French Rafale jets and is set to buy loitering munitions – a type of drone that flies to a target and detonates – from the United Arab Emirates.
Serbia’s military is now modelled on NATO standards and is in the Western alliance’s Partnership for Peace programme.
Old ties that bind
Vucic has repeatedly said EU membership is Serbia’s strategic goal and that ties with the West will bring benefits such as more jobs, investment and higher living standards.
Despite Belgrade’s westward shift, however, pro-Russian sentiment remains significant in politics and the street.
When Russian student Ilya Zernov tried to paint over “Death to Ukraine” graffiti on a wall in Belgrade, he was cornered by a group of men he recognised as Serbian pro-Russian ultranationalists.
“(A man) pulled out a knife and started threatening me … He punched me in the right ear,” Zernov, who fled to Serbia from his hometown of Kazan last year after publicly opposing Russia’s invasion, told Reuters.
Dozens of Serbian ultra-nationalist political parties and groups openly support Russia and since 2014 dozens of Serbian men have fought in eastern Ukraine alongside Moscow-backed separatist forces, despite Belgrade declaring this illegal.
Cedomir Stojkovic, a Belgrade-based lawyer and activist whose October Group publishes lists of prominent Serbs who are outspoken supporters of Russia, said Serbia was under Russia’s “hybrid occupation”.
Stojkovic has launched criminal complaints against the Russian ambassador and the head of Serbia’s state security service over the influence of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group in the Balkan country.
That influence extends through the media with the Russia Today and Sputnik news outlets allowed to operate in Serbia despite being banned elsewhere in Europe, and at least three daily newspapers openly supportive of the Kremlin’s cause.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; writing by Kirsten Donovan; editing by Mark Heinrich)