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Et tu, Belgrade? Vucic-Zelensky meeting shows Serbia can't be labeled as Kremlin ally just yet

During this week, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, engaged in comprehensive negotiations with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky – the first of its kind since the commencement of the full-scale Russian invasion. The two leaders conveyed their mutual support for territorial integrity and deliberated over a shared European future. These customary diplomatic expressions resonated with an almost provocative tone within a country that the Kremlin regards as its ally. For Vucic, engaging in negotiations with Ukraine is a more intricate endeavor compared to other European nations, primarily due to Serbia's predicament. On one hand, the nation remains significantly reliant on Russian gas, while on the other, it seeks Western investments. Moreover, the authorities cannot afford to disregard the public sentiments. Both within Serbia and across the expanse of the Balkans, the Russian encroachment upon Ukraine lacks endorsement. Notwithstanding Vucic's amicable rhetoric towards Moscow, Serbia is not rushing to collaborate with Russia in practicality. To illustrate, the authorities have prohibited the enlistment of mercenaries for Russian military forces within their borders.

  • No advocates of war in the Balkans

  • No sanctions, no Russian visitors

  • Why is Vucic considered a Kremlin ally?

  • A Blow to Wagner

  • Fake-maker Vucic

  • Kremlin's chief advocate

  • Dubious services

In the photograph that Vucic shared on his Instagram after the meeting with Zelensky in Athens, it's evident that both politicians are maintaining a distance that is almost as far as possible during a handshake. This image contrasts with many other photos that fill Vucic's social media pages. When necessary, the Serbian leader knows how to display interest and warmth, often going beyond the confines of protocol, as seen in the picture with the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, taken in Athens. The handshake with Zelensky is more of a compelled gesture, and the Serbian leader doesn't attempt to hide this fact. Within the context of the Ukrainian conflict, Vucic prefers to publicly convey a sense of inevitability. The main message is this: I am constantly under pressure from great powers and I'm doing everything I can to protect Serbian interests.

  • Alexander Vucic and Volodymyr Zelensky at the meeting in Athens
  • Alexander Vucic and Ursula von der Leyen at the meeting in Athens

Serbia falls into the category of nations that possess limited influence over the resolution of the Ukrainian conflict while simultaneously relying on collaborations with both Eastern and Western powers. As it aspires to join the European Union and secures substantial investments from Western sources, Vucic finds himself under the pressure of the Russian gas supply mechanism. Nearly the entirety of Serbia's required gas is sourced from Russia, with no foreseeable alternative to Gazprom deliveries in the foreseeable future. These factors predominantly shape the scope of maneuverability. Given the ongoing war, Vucic faces difficulties in conducting meaningful negotiations with Ukraine. Despite the absence of insurmountable conflicts with Ukrainian authorities, Serbia, along with other Balkan nations, refrains from aiding the Kremlin's attempts to reshape the post-Soviet landscape.

No advocates of war in the Balkans

Prominent or notable politicians in the Balkans (excluding marginalized figures) do not openly endorse Russian military operations nor exhibit staunch opposition to the Kyiv administration. Over the past year, all countries in the region, to varying degrees, have condemned the aggression, leading to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from many states (Bulgaria leading the pack by expelling 70 embassy staff in Sofia). Balkan countries are members of the European Union and NATO or are politically aligned with Euro-Atlantic integration aspirations. Consequently, their overall foreign policy stance aligns with the consensus in Brussels, although the degree of harmony with respect to the Russian direction might differ among candidate nations.

All Balkan countries, to varying degrees, have condemned the aggression, leading to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from many states

For instance, since the annexation of Crimea, Montenegro has supported all steps taken by Western partners to limit relations with Moscow, including the imposition of sanctions and the expulsion of diplomats. In turn, Serbia, which does not recognize Crimea as Russian and does not attempt to justify the Russian invasion of 2022, prefers a discreet distancing from the Kremlin—avoiding sudden moves and loud statements. Belgrade hasn't joined the sanctions, citing its own negative experience of international isolation in the 1990s, and has exercised restraint on the international stage when it comes to voting on anti-Russian documents. For example, Belgrade supported the suspension of Russia's membership in the UN Human Rights Council but did not support the creation of a special registry documenting the damage inflicted on Ukraine during the military actions.

No sanctions, no Russian visitors

While refusing to impose sanctions against Russia, Serbian authorities are simultaneously intensifying their rhetoric on this matter. In December of the previous year, during negotiations with EU representatives, Vucic stated that Serbia had uncovered several cases of circumvention of the embargo against Russia and would not allow its country to become a tool for evading sanctions.

As Vucic himself stated in October 2022, he never promised he wouldn't impose sanctions against Russia:

“If an existential threat arises for Serbia, I will address the nation and say that we must do it.”

Few doubt that Vucic is the sole person in the country to decide the extent of an “existential threat” and the timing for making “compelled” decisions. Moreover, polls show that the number of supporters for anti-Russian measures in Serbian society has grown during the war.

Polls show that the number of supporters for anti-Russian measures in Serbian society has grown during the war

Since the onset of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Belgrade has refrained from hosting high-ranking Russian officials. In the initial days of the “special operation,” the visit of Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev was canceled, and in June of the past year, the visit of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was disrupted as Bulgaria, Montenegro, and North Macedonia denied permission for his plane to fly over. Since then, Russian figures have not attempted visiting their “Serbian brothers” to discuss the development of their “strategic partnership.” This situation is advantageous for Belgrade, which is spared the task of providing a platform for traditional anti-Western statements by Russian guests and having to explain this to the EU and the US.

Over the course of a year and a half of the war, the relations between Russia and Serbia have frequently teetered on the brink of crisis due to Belgrade's attempts to distance itself from Moscow. One of the reasons was the suspicion that Serbian weaponry was finding its way into Ukraine and could potentially be used against Russia. Serbian authorities had to clarify that they were not selling arms or ammunition to either Russia or Ukraine. However, experts note that specific deals involving private companies are hard to investigate, and given Serbia's active arms trade, it's unsurprising that some weapons eventually make their way onto the battlefields.

Why is Vucic considered a Kremlin ally?

In Athens, Zelensky thanked Vucic for the humanitarian aid and support to Ukrainians who found refuge in Serbia. Nonetheless, in the eyes of many observers, Vucic's politics often appear pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukrainian. This perception is largely shaped both by the information presented within Russia itself, where quasi-state media frequently portray Serbia as an “ally,” and by Vucic's self-positioning in the public domain. He often sends mixed signals in terms of foreign policy and does not shy away from compliments towards Russian authorities, especially in the context of gas deals, whereby Belgrade receives gas at significantly below market prices—$400 per cubic meter. Surveys conducted in Serbia show that Putin is much more favorably viewed there than other leaders. Vucic adeptly juggles the sympathies of his electorate.

Aleksandar Vucic and Vladimir Putin
Aleksandar Vucic and Vladimir Putin

Vucic attempts to navigate a balancing act between Russia and the West, aiming to extract maximum political and economic benefits from their rivalry. By employing a “pro-Russian emphasis,” Vucic seems to signal to the West that he has an “alternative,” although in reality, Serbian authorities have no intention of orienting towards Moscow or renouncing their EU membership, which accounts for almost two-thirds of Serbia's trade and investments.

Economically, Serbia has been distancing itself from Russia for many years (Russia makes up around 6% of Serbia's external trade). Russia's position as an investor and creditor has been diminishing. To stabilize its financial situation at the end of the previous year, Serbia received $2.6 billion from the IMF and a lucrative $1 billion credit from the UAE.

The Russian factor and ambiguous political signals serve Belgrade's interests in alleviating pressure from the EU and the US. This primarily pertains to the issue of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. Vucic would prefer to delay the formal recognition of Kosovo's independence, a step that becomes inevitable during EU integration. Diplomatic support for Serbia in this direction is only provided by Russia and China, who block Kosovo's membership in international organizations.

The Russian factor and ambiguous political signals serve Belgrade's interests in alleviating pressure from the EU and the US

Vucic occasionally weaves the Kosovo matter into the context of Ukraine. By expressing support for Ukraine's territorial integrity in his meeting with Zelensky, he shifts the focus to the fact that many supporters of Ukraine do not respect Serbian sovereignty. He also hopes that Kyiv will not recognize Kosovo. (Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence has been recognized by the US and most EU countries.)

A Blow to Wagner

Serbia is one of the few countries where rallies in support of the Kremlin have taken place after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Graffiti depicting Putin or symbols of the Russian invasion occasionally appear there. Studies reveal that under Vucic's leadership, Serbia has opened doors for pro-Kremlin sentiments to spread in the region. Numerous organizations with unclear funding have emerged, promoting a positive image of Putin and his policies while distorting the concept of democracy and sowing Euroscepticism.

Throughout the Ukrainian conflict, Serbia's image as a hub for Russian influence has only grown stronger. However, tolerance for this influence has proven not to be limitless. Earlier this year, the Wagner PMC attempted to recruit volunteers from the Balkans for operations in Ukraine. However, Serbian authorities promptly expressed their disapproval of the organization's presence and reminded potential mercenaries of criminal liability—Serbian citizens participating in foreign conflicts risk up to 10 years in prison.

An attempt to provoke a wave of mercenaries was made by RT, a channel under international sanctions for propaganda and disinformation. They published an enticing offer in their Balkan media project, RT Balkan. It was reported that Wagner payments amounted to 240,000 rubles per month, with particularly distinguished individuals potentially receiving rewards of up to one million rubles. In the Balkans, where unemployment is high, these are significant sums of money.

Other pro-Kremlin media, Serbian-language Telegram channels, and lesser-known radicals outside the Serbian parliament have also been promoting the image of Wagner in the region. One such figure is Damjan Knezevic, the leader of the far-right organization “People's Patrol.” He visited the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg last year and was arrested in Belgrade in February after an anti-government rally at which Russian Z and V symbols were displayed.

Fake-maker Vucic

Despite Vucic putting a halt to the promotion of Wagner advertisements, RT Balkan itself remained unaffected. This online project places significant emphasis on events related to Ukraine with a critical stance toward Ukrainian authorities. Given the linguistic aspect, RT Balkan aims to reach audiences not only in Serbia but also in Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, partially in Kosovo, and any countries with former Yugoslav diaspora communities.

Serbian authorities do not hinder the dissemination of pro-Kremlin content and disinformation. And if such hindrance does occur, it's only under pressure from Western partners, as was the case with the German-language channel RT DE. Its launch became possible after Serbian authorities granted a broadcasting license in a closed-door manner. The channel was launched on December 16, 2021, and was taken off the air in Europe a week later. Since the Serbian media regulator issued the license shortly after Vucic's visit to Russia, some observers deemed it to be part of advantageous gas agreements that held special significance at the outset of the pre-election campaign.

Serbian authorities do not hinder the dissemination of pro-Kremlin content and disinformation

Vucic, furthermore, often becomes a participant in the information war. He indulges in vivid discussions about the Ukrainian conflict, blending facts and fiction. While he certainly doesn't reach the extremes of local tabloids that claimed Ukraine attacked Russia in February of last year, some of his forecasts appear scandalous. For instance, a year ago, the Serbian leader asserted that “the world will be plunged into hell” if global leaders don't heed Putin's proposals.

This statement echoes Russian propagandists' tales of “nuclear ashes.” Although Vucic is likely unaware of the Kremlin's plans, he enjoys appearing informed and keeping his audience on edge. The Ukrainian conflict has repeatedly provided him with opportunities to shift attention in the direction he desires, redirecting Serbian voters' focus to issues that don't directly concern them. By Vucic's own estimation, 80% of Serbian media leans pro-Russian, and this pertains to the media space under Serbian authorities' control.

Kremlin's chief advocate

In the context of the Ukrainian conflict, the President of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, can afford a more straightforward approach. He remains under American and British sanctions. His anti-Ukrainian stance is less conspicuous amid the broader picture, but from a propagandistic perspective, it holds a certain value in Moscow's eyes. Dodik is the only high-ranking politician in the region to acknowledge Crimea as Russian and support Russia's offensive, labeling it as “inevitable.” Prior to these events, there was no known claim by the leader of Bosnian Serbs regarding Ukraine.

Dodik is the only high-ranking politician in the region to acknowledge Crimea as Russian

Bosnia stands out as one of the nations where significant divisions among political elites are evident concerning Russian policy and the Ukrainian situation. This is intricately linked to the nation's unique post-war framework, comprising two somewhat loosely connected entities—the Republika Srpska (occupying 49% of the territory) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (encompassing 51%), with a predominant population of Muslims (Bosniaks) and Croats. Sarajevo, a predominantly Muslim city that serves as the central seat of governance, has maintained a certain distance in its relations with Moscow since the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s. In contrast, within the Republika Srpska, there is a conspicuous demonstration of utmost rapprochement.

Given the lingering divide since the end of the Bosnian War and periodically escalating ethnic tensions, Bosnia is among the countries that the Ukrainian conflict can significantly impact. Over the past year, Western countries have sent additional specialists in defense and combating disinformation to the region, as well as a few hundred troops to reinforce the EUFOR peacekeeping mission (which Moscow intermittently threatens to block in the UN Security Council).

Dodik is regularly received in the Kremlin, even though his formal status falls short: he lacks foreign policy authority, but for many years he has been trying to assert it, declaring a course towards full autonomy. Since 2014, Putin and Dodik have met no less than 10 times. After each such meeting, the leader of Bosnian Serbs declares Moscow's support, hinting at his separatist initiatives.

 Milorad Dodik and Vladimir Putin
Milorad Dodik and Vladimir Putin

His May visit to Russia drew harsh criticism from the EU and the US, given that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a candidate for EU and NATO membership. Dodik once again attempted to utilize the Moscow platform to advance his policy of disintegration and present himself as a key partner of Moscow in the Balkans. Dodik's frequent contacts with the Kremlin appear as a slap to the West, which has not been able to achieve complete isolation of Russia amidst the Ukraine war or secure full peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite years of diplomatic efforts and billions spent.

Dubious services

Dodik is constructing an image as an influential regional political figure backed by a powerful state; accordingly, his behavior in the context of the Ukrainian conflict is expected to align with Russian expectations. However, in the eyes of some observers, he appears to be nothing more than a “useful idiot,” a pawn used by Putin to demonstrate to his opponents that there are still openings elsewhere and that he can create problems for the West.

The services exchanged between the Kremlin and Dodik are largely scandalous in nature. For instance, Russia aids the leader of the Bosnian Serbs in denying the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, attributing the mass killings of local Muslims to the work of Western intelligence agencies. Denying the Srebrenica massacre and downplaying the extent of enemy's losses has become a significant part of Dodik's political rhetoric, helping him mobilize a nationalist segment of the electorate amid economic failures. In this context, Moscow's statements align with Dodik's interests, and he, in turn, fuels anti-Ukrainian hysteria in the Balkans.

Recently, he attempted to disrupt the visit of two members of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Željko Komšić (representing the Croats) and Denis Bećirović (representing the Bosniaks), to Ukraine, claiming that their uncoordinated trip leads to the country's disintegration. Notably, playing into Moscow's hands amidst the Ukrainian crisis, Dodik went to great lengths during Lavrov's visit to Sarajevo in 2020. He gifted the Russian foreign minister a gilded 18th-century icon from Luhansk, bearing the seal of the Ukrainian People's Committee of Culture from 1920. This caused such an uproar that Lavrov hastily returned the gift. In Moscow, it seems, they concluded that not all stolen items hold value.

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