INTERVIEW WITH A RUSSIAN HOSTEL OWNER IN BELGRADE, SERBIA
Moscow-Belgrade: mythical brotherhood and real interests
Balkan expert Andrey Shary told &# 171; Voice of America&# 187; on the details of the relationship between Russia and Serbia
MOSCOW – The country chosen for the meeting of Kurt Volcker and Vladislav Surkov, US and Russian special envoys for the settlement in Ukraine, looks like a good place for such negotiations: Serbia seeks to integrate into the community of Western countries, while at the same time remaining a country of the Slavic world with long-standing ties with Russia.
However, Belgrade looks towards Moscow with more sympathy than towards Washington: in particular, Belgrade does not support Western sanctions against Russia imposed after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine..
This was once again confirmed by Serbian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, interviewed by the Russian newspaper Izvestia on November 13: “Serbia will remain consistent in its policy and will not join European anti-Russian sanctions. Moreover, we hope and wish that the sanctions against Russia will be lifted as soon as possible. We are, of course, confronted with the consequences of our decision. Serbia wants to join the EU, but we will never go against our own national interests and will never impose sanctions against friends. “.
Dacic also told Izvestia that “Serbia is not interested in joining NATO or any other military alliance.”.
How close are Russia and Serbia? Can they be considered allies? Is the military cooperation between the two countries significant? Do Moscow’s interests in the Balkans extend beyond Serbia??
These questions were answered in a detailed interview with the Voice of America Russian Service Andrei Shary, a specialist in the Balkans, Director of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty..
Sergey Nikolaev: What are Russian interests in Serbia – geostrategic, political and economic?
Andrey Shary: I think that Russia has a wide variety of interests in Serbia – the Kremlin traditionally views Belgrade as a bulwark of its influence in southeastern Europe, and Moscow has always tried to build some kind of political combinations based on cooperation with the Serbian side. Now, when the regime of Vladimir Putin is persistently looking for friends all over Europe, every unit of such friendship is important. Therefore, Southeast Europe receives the same noticeable attention as others, including small countries..
Another thing is that Russia’s sphere of influence in Southeast Europe is shrinking, and it is clear that Russia is facing difficulties on this path. Gradually, individual countries are leaving Moscow’s sphere of influence, or its influence is weakening (Montenegro is the most recent example). Objectively, it turns out that Serbia is the only country that does not openly declare its desire to join NATO in the Balkans. It remains attractive to Moscow, which has largely lost ground in Bulgaria, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia over the past decade. Moscow tried to play a noticeable political game in all these countries..
Moscow also has its own economic interests in Serbia. It cannot be said that the volume of trade between these two countries is large. It slightly exceeds $ 1.5 billion, which is a small amount for Russia. But Serbia receives Russian gas, Russian oil, Russian weapons, however, for the most part for nothing, and not as some serious purchases. And, of course, an economic tool in this case is an opportunity to strengthen Russia’s political and geopolitical influence in the western Balkans..
S.N .: Serbia is always spoken about in Moscow with special feeling, and for the last 25 years, especially, using the word “brothers” and insisting on a kind of brotherhood that has been dragging on for centuries. How mutual is this brotherhood and how real is it?
A.Sh .: It is primarily preserved as a historical myth. Since the days of the Serbian monarchy, Serbian policy has been based on a balance between the interests of Russia and the Western world. The royal Serbian dynasties, to varying degrees, were oriented towards Moscow, more precisely, at that time – towards St. Petersburg. The Obrenovich dynasty, for example, was considered pro-Western, and the Karadjordievich dynasty – the last royal dynasty to rule in Serbia – was traditionally considered pro-Russian. These ties were severed after the collapse of the Russian Empire, and after the formation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It is clear that the communists with the monarchical regime of the Karageorgievichs could not cooperate to any appreciable degree, and the ties of the Soviet Union with socialist Yugoslavia after World War II experienced different epochs – from intense rivalry in the late 40s of the 20th century to moderate cooperation in the 70s. x – 80s.
But the idea of a special Serbian-Russian relationship has always been exploited. Basically, this is a “folklore-sharovarny” version of reading history, since there is no real such reinforcement for this, except for historical anecdotes and proverbs. By the way, Montenegro, by the way, has historically been more strongly oriented towards Russia, and there, at least, there are grounds for this historical brotherhood: St. Petersburg for two centuries fed the Monarchy monarchy with financial and other subsidies. This was not the case in Serbia either. But the myth about special, separate relations with the Serbs, about the Orthodox brotherhood, about the Russian Cossacks, which should settle in Serbia, stories that Russian volunteers fought during the war in Bosnia, and Serbian volunteers fought now on the side of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine – it all lives and feeds. Some cultural initiatives are underpinned by this. But my trips to the Balkans show that it is rather difficult to notice any better attitude in the political and economic circles of Serbia to Russia in comparison with other countries. People who soberly assess reality do not attach serious importance to these historical myths..
S.N .: Russian arms deliveries to Serbia and Russian-Serbian military exercises – can this be seen as a factor in strengthening Belgrade’s political loyalty to Moscow?
A.Sh .: I think it can, and that it is. These military supplies are actually not very large. And, as I said, they boil down to Russian gifts to the Serbian side. In recent years, Russia has donated 13 T-72S tanks, 30 BRDM-2 combat vehicles and six MIG-29 fighters to Serbia, which are incomplete and in need of improvement. The Serbian army is partly armed with Soviet-style weapons, in particular, there are several outdated MIG-21s. The country is not rich; it itself cannot build a powerful air force. And unlike those countries that have joined NATO, it cannot delegate the protection of its air borders to others, as Montenegro did, whose skies will be guarded by Italian aircraft. Therefore, Serbia is forced to wait for gifts from Russian friends..
Exercises are indeed being held, and Moscow, of course, sees this as an additional opportunity to develop its influence. In the Serbian city of Nis, the center of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Russia is located. Behind its closed doors it is not very clear what is being done there: they say that it can also be used for military intelligence purposes, but such conversations have not been confirmed. Russia has been unsuccessfully trying to obtain diplomatic immunity by the employees of this center for several years, but the Serbian authorities are resisting, apparently believing that this is already too much in their relations with Moscow. But given that NATO is deployed on its southern wing, where there are relatively new alliance members Albania and Croatia, it is understandable that the Kremlin is watching with concern what is happening there. Therefore, Serbia is the only platform that remains free from the official influence of the North Atlantic bloc and, accordingly, is of more interest to Moscow than neighboring countries..
S.N .: Many Serbian analysts complain that Russia is “Putinizing” Serbia, trying to spread its own unique influence over this country. Is it so?
A.Sh .: I think that in some ways the socio-political processes in these countries are objectively similar. It may even seem that Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic is following the path paved by Vladimir Putin. Now this theory is popular in the media, they say that Vucic is trying to consolidate his power in the same way as Vladimir Putin did. It restricts opportunities for action and political opposition, reduces space for free media – Putin has already done this in Russia.
On the other hand, the development paths of all dictatorships in the modern world are more or less similar. Such details of similarity can be found in other countries, including those that are part of the European Union, for example, in Hungary, where authoritarian tendencies in the government of Viktor Orban have been on the rise for a long time. Also, the information space of Serbia is largely influenced by sources from Russia, Sputnik is very active. There are many projects in the Serbian language that set a point of view on how the situation is developing in the world and in the country itself, and Russia is using these opportunities of influence to the fullest. There is also a system of non-governmental organizations that are directly or indirectly financed by Russia. And all this, possibly, has a corrupting effect on the situation in Serbia. If we assume that this is so, then it is clear that the paths of political development of Serbia and Russia can go in parallel..
Still, there are a lot of differences. Serbia is a small country. It is largely more dependent on external sources than Russia. It cannot choose one strategic and geopolitical partner. It is clear that in the nearest foreseeable future it will not be only Russia, or only the European Union. And not the United States – latent anti-American sentiments are strong in this country. This is due to the consequences of the armed conflict between Milosevic’s Serbia and NATO in 1999. It is quite easy to warm these sentiments among the people, among the broad masses of the population. Therefore, all this together can create a feeling that the political situation and the paradigm of political development of these countries are similar. But I am still inclined to believe that this is a purely external resemblance.
S.N .: A very serious gap has already occurred between Russia and Montenegro. There was an attempted coup, as if with the participation of Russian activists. Russia is accused of participating in an attempt to almost kill the prime minister last October. Montenegro joined NATO. What’s the matter here? Why Russia launched such a campaign against Montenegro?
A.Sh .: First, it is necessary to pay attention to the uniqueness of the Montenegrin political scene and the methods of engaging in politics in this country. This is a very small state, and a patriarchal system of politics has been preserved there to a certain extent, when – this is similar to the Russian Caucasus – clannishness and personal relations between people matter. And in many ways, modern policy methods are superimposed on the traditional structure of Montenegrin society. There are not so many influential clans, and the development of the entire country depends on which one of them comes to governing the country, which political vector he chooses. There are, of course, elements of democracy, there is also control by European structures, but, nevertheless, the situation in this small and poor country is peculiar. The rapprochement between Russia and Montenegro in the early 2000s was associated precisely with these aspects, when several groups of Russian businessmen got the opportunity to make large investments in Montenegro, first of all, Oleg Deripaska’s group. In addition, Montenegro turned out to be a profitable tourist destination, and 10 or 12 thousand Russians settled there for a long time, and active construction was underway. I was recently in Montenegro and saw all these Russian villages with names like “Tsarskoe Selo”. For any other country, this would be just an episode, but in Montenegro, for a short time, these ties turned into a vector of the country’s development. And then the situation changed – Montenegro gained independence, strengthened it. And in their pragmatic interests, the country’s leadership (by and large, the same clan that previously cooperated with Russia) made a slightly different choice, realizing that the situation in Europe and the world is changing. And the result of this was precisely the fact that relations between Russia and Montenegro lost their former warmth..
S.N .: And from what is said at the trial of the attempted coup, something can be understood?
A.Sh .: I am following the trial of those accused of attempting a coup, there are a lot of strange things. In Podgorica itself and in other cities of Montenegro, they say different things about this process, many do not believe. But the court will pass some verdicts, and then it will become clearer. For example, I have no doubts that some kind of Russian agents are operating there, but whether they are acting independently, under the Kremlin’s cover or under the cover of Russian special services is a conspiracy that I would not want to go into..
Naturally, Montenegro’s decision to join NATO was painful for Russia, since this country is important, first of all, because there is a deep-water port there. And there may be a serious naval harbor, which at one time was one of the main bases of the Austro-Hungarian navy. The large commercial port of Bar is of interest, and at a time when Slobodan Milosevic was planning to join the Union of Russia and Belarus in Yugoslavia, there was talk that a Russian naval base would appear on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro, then Yugoslavia. In general, Montenegro is perhaps the most vivid example of how Russia failed to retain its former influence in the region, given that the people, in the folklore tradition, are very clear about historical ties with Russia, much more clearly than in Serbia..
S.N .: Macedonia and Republika Srpska – an enclave in Bosnia and Herzegovina – to what extent are they also a subject of Russian interest? If so, and if Moscow takes any steps towards them, then what could be their goal??
A.Sh .: The whole group of countries that formed after the collapse of Yugoslavia, and Macedonia, and partially recognized Kosovo, and Montenegro, and the Bosnian Republika Srpska, and the second part of Bosnia and Herzegovina – the Croatian Muslim Federation – are all territories where big politics is not being done. Moscow, of course, is trying by its own means to stop the slow slide of the countries of the former Yugoslavia towards NATO, and sees this territory as a platform for its rivalry with the United States. This is where these attempts to bet on one or another political force in the region come from..
In Macedonia, this situation is not very bright, but this country is very poor. There, literally tens of millions of dollars can decide the fate of the government and even the country’s political choice. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in fact has been a protectorate of the international community for 20 years (the country, I recall, was formed after the Dayton Peace Agreements, with a very complex structure of multi-level government, with a huge opportunity for corruption), it is very easy to play on the inability of local politicians to come to an agreement … There is no need to destroy the situation with a lot of political intelligence, which is what Moscow, which stands behind the back of the Bosnian Republika Srpska in a number of crises, is doing very successfully. Therefore, both Macedonia and the Bosnian Republic of Serbia, it seems to me, are important for Russia not as some kind of focal points for the application of efforts, but in the general Balkan scenario, given that these countries are still shifting towards the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance..
Without Russia, with its traditionally strong ties with the Western Balkans, the solution of serious issues (whether it concerns the state structure or the future paths of development of Bosnia and Herzegovina or Macedonia) is quite difficult to decide. Just as in the case of North Korea or Syria, the Western community is forced to turn to the help of Moscow, which for its cooperation may ask for some concessions in other areas, and this is what Russia is trying to do now..