“What is good for Serbia is good for Russia”

Whether or not relations with Russia are an obstacle to Serbia’s EU integration will depend, in part, on the EU’s ability to find a solution that will allow it to integrate both Serbia and Kosovo.

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Conflict Background


By Milan Milenković

After Serbia finalized cooperation with the Hague Tribunal in July 2011, and following violence in Kosovo in the same month, the EU’s conditionality towards Serbia has crystallized. During her visit to Belgrade in August 2011, Chancellor Merkel stated that Serbia must abolish the so-called ‘parallel structures’ in north Kosovo, allow EULEX to operate undisturbed in the entire territory of Kosovo and to continue dialogue with Priština.

The Serbian authorities, however, almost unanimously rejected the condition to cancel the parallel structures that present rare symbols of Serbian statehood in Kosovo. Merkel’s visit reminded Belgrade that Serbia’s path towards the EU was paved with numerous conditions, of which certainly the most problematic was the issue of Kosovo. The message is increasingly clear – the EU will not import new problems. All EU member states support the current negotiations on technical issues between Belgrade and Priština, under the EU’s patronage. Serbia is aware that its slogan, “both Kosovo and EU”, may soon echo back as an official stand from the EU as “either Kosovo or the EU”; or in the most extreme case, “neither Kosovo, nor the EU”.

In relations with the EU and major EU states, the Kosovo issue is the biggest problem for Serbia’s integration process. At the same time, however, this issue provides a crucial political link between Serbia and Russia. Recent violent events in Kosovo proved once again that situation on the ground is controlled by NATO and the EU, while Russia excluded itself from this process after it had withdrawn troops from Kosovo in 2003. In spite of not having direct influence in Kosovo, Russia is a crucial ally in Serbia’s attempts to prevent Kosovo’s statehood.

Recognition of Kosovo by Serbia – bad news for Russia

During the process of determining Kosovo’s final status, Russia – openly invited to help its “Orthodox brother” – insisted that any solution had to be acceptable to both parties, not imposed, and would be applicable to other regions of the world. An imposed solution would be the legitimization of NATO’s 1999 intervention that Russia “had so vehemently opposed”. Russia itself, however, was indirectly affected because of its own restless regions and those in its “near abroad”, particularly those of strategic importance. By standing firm, Moscow was “upholding” international law, and reinforcing the role of UN Security Council, thereby achieving important foreign policy goals.

After major Western states largely ignored Russia’s position – primarily because they considered its opposition to Kosovo’s independence as a kind of bluff – Russia used the ‘Kosovo precedent’ in its own backyard by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in August 2008. During the conflict, and in the period immediately after recognition, Russian officials often mentioned NATO’s 1999 intervention and the unilateral recognition of Kosovo by major Western powers as a prime justification of its actions.

The importance of the brief August 2008 war for Russia is best described by Aleksandar Lukin, who argues that that the military action “has undermined the model of Russian-Western relations that arose in 1990s and created a new situation in the world – one real, rather than declared multipolarity”. Lukin added that this “new situation in Georgia” was also a “discouraging lesson for some countries” regarding their behavior toward Russia.

If Serbia recognizes Kosovo, Russian crucial political link to Serbia – as the main opponent to Kosovo’s independence – would disappear and also the claim that Russia had merely “copied” the West’s behavior toward Kosovo would be diluted.

Another reason for Russia’s interests in Serbia not being conditioned to recognize Kosovo is the question of Serbia’s membership in NATO. The unwritten rule that one post-communist European country must first join NATO and then enter the EU, could be made a condition for Serbia before joining the EU. On the other hand, once being left without any chance to keep Kosovo, the Serbian authorities might completely turn toward European integrations, meaning that NATO membership might become more realistic and attractive as kind of a shortcut to the EU. During his visit to Belgrade in March 2011, Putin threatened the Serbian political elite with a Russian reaction if Serbia joins NATO, using the same rhetoric of the “Russian missile threat” as he used to warn the Ukraine about the consequences of its possible NATO membership. Russian officials repeated several times that if Serbia joined NATO, Russia would recognize Kosovo.

This kind of strong objection is rooted in several facts. The first is certainly the year 1999 and NATO airstrikes of Yugoslavia. If Serbia would join NATO, it would definitely legitimize that intervention. Membership of Serbia in NATO might lead to another serious “cooling down” between the “Slav brothers”; one that would be even deeper than after 2000, but probably not as serious as it used to be in 1948. Another reason for Russia’s objections to Serbia’s NATO membership is that Serbian military equipment is of Soviet/Russian origin and needs to be modernized. In a document created by the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, entitled “Programme for efficient use of Foreign policy on systematic basis as means for long-term development of the Russian Federation”, it was stated that Russia should continue its military-technical cooperation with Serbia.

The Konuzin effect

During the period of recent tensions in north Kosovo, Russia’s ambassador in Belgrade, Aleksandr Konuzin, stoked-up the anti-EU and anti-NATO mood. First, he described the actions of KFOR and EULEX as being part of “another huge anti-Serb campaign”, adding that the EU was blackmailing Serbia with Kosovo, and that its mission in Kosovo was “aggressively violating the international law and applying double standards in the implementation of the same principle”. Later on, in September, he held his now infamous speech at the Belgrade Security Forum, when he accused the Serbian authorities for being indifferent toward the issue of Kosovo, and that EU and NATO were opposing Serbia’s national interest.

Taking into account the public disposition in Serbia about European integrations, Konuzin picked the perfect moment to deliver the Kremlin’s message. In the last quarter of 2011, support for EU membership has never been so low; dropping below 50% in September for the first time since 2000. The Eurozone crisis, events in north Kosovo and the apparent conditioning of Serbia’s EU integration with the Kosovo issue will certainly not improve this percentage. Besides, it is not so difficult to trigger anti-Western sentiment in Serbia, with issues such as the ICTY, NATO airstrikes and Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence are sufficient for the “patriotically-orientated” part of the Serbian population to justify abandoning EU integration. Russian officials has used these sentiments quite well by always reminding about the 1999 NATO airstrikes, the unfairness of the ICTY towards Serbs and Russian support on the Kosovo issue.

How deep is Russian influence in Serbia?

Russia has a solid base from which to exert influence over Serbia, where public opinion considers Russia as Serbia’s main ally. Visits by the highest Russian officials always create more excitement than those from other states. A greater number of magazines in Serbia now write positively about Russia – its economic and political strength, cultural and religious heritage – whilst glorifying Serbian-Russian friendship throughout history. Political discourse is also very positive on Russia, especially from the parties to the right of the political spectrum, such as the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). Indeed, other parties – like the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and, in part, the Democratic Party (DS) – also share, but to a lesser extent, the tendency to evaluate cooperation with Russia as one of the most important priorities. Economic parameters show that Russia is the biggest import partner of Serbia, but also the country with whom Serbia has the largest trade deficit. Serbia is almost completely dependent on Russian energy, but they both share an interest in realization of the South Stream project.

Russian influence on elections was demonstrated during the extremey tight presidential elections of January-February 2008, when the Kremlin supported Boris Tadić because he was seen as a better partner for realizing Russian economic interests; namely, the energetic agreement that was proposed by Russia in mid-December 2007. Although the then leader of the SRS, Tomislav Nikolić, played the Russian card in campaigning, the Kremlin’s support went to his opponent. On that occasion, Putin sent Tadić a letter congratulating him on his fiftieth birthday, but also reminding him about energy-sector cooperation. This letter was used in Tadić’s election campaign as a clear sign of support from Putin. The signing of energy agreements between Russia and Serbia in Moscow took place between the two rounds of the elections, when besides Tadić and Koštunica, Putin and Medvedev were also present. This occasion definitely gave a small but much needed advantage to Tadić.

As in 2008, Moscow has its own calculations for the 2012 elections. On the third anniversary of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in Niš at the end of October, Ambasador Konuzin appeared and even gave a political speech, whose content can be characterized as open support for the SNS. It seems that Moscow would like to see Nikolić as a leading figure in the next Serbian Government that would be a reliable partner for equal – and even favourable – treatment of Russian capital and investments, a Government that would not pursue NATO integration, nor be ready to give up easily Serbian interests in Kosovo. The slogan – “both Kosovo and the EU” – on which Tadić won the 2008 elections today seems quite unrealistic, and the current Serbian authorities are sending signals that they might be prepared to reconsider it. On the other side, the SNS are employing a metaphor of Kosovo and the EU as two sons whom Serbia will never give up. So far, voices from Moscow are supporting this policy.

Brussels on the move

Though the attractiveness of EU integration in Serbia rises when there are signs of progress, the magnetism of membership has been seriously shaken by the EU’s internal crisis, events in north Kosovo and frequent statements from EU member states connecting further progress to the Kosovo issue. There is some kind of consensus among the main political parties about joining the EU, after Nikolić managed to diminish the SRS as an electoral force. Serbia is the EU’s backyard, rather than an EU exclusive zone, so the future of Serbia’s EU integration will depend mainly on Brussels, and less on Moscow.

The integration of Serbia and the issue of Kosovo are of a great importance for the EU, mainly because EU credibility to act on the global stage depends on its ability to resolve problems in its own backyard, and Balkan instability will definitely affect the EU’s own stability. On the other hand, the Western Balkans, and particularly Serbia, are far from the main priorities of Russian foreign policy. Another factor is that EU member states are the most important economic partners for both Serbia and Russia. Whether or not relations with Russia are an obstacle to Serbia’s EU integration depends upon the EU’s capacity for creating a solution that will integrate both Serbia and Kosovo, whilst not in the process humiliating Serbia, nor pressing Belgrade to join NATO. The EU, however, lacks such a grand strategy; using instead the same pattern of pressure and conditions “spiced” with some “carrots”. Unfortunately the EU doesn’t have a coherent foreign policy, and most of the gaps that appear in relations with Belgrade will be filled with additional Russian presence in Serbia and beyond.

Milan Milenković holds MA in International Relations acquired at the University of Bologna and the Saint Petersburg State University (Interdisciplinary Research Studies on Eastern Europe – MIREES program). Also he graduated International Relations from the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade and graduated at the Department for Advanced Undergraduate Studies – “The European Union and the Balkans Programme” of Belgrade Open School.

This article is published as part of TransConflict’s initiative, ‘Serbia’s Future on the Future of Serbia’, further information about which is available by clicking here.

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6 Responses

  1. Diza Kosovar

    Russia is utilizing (misusing) Serbia for its own interests. Look at NIS (oil industry of Serbia). NIS had annual net profit of 100 million Euros on 2006 and 2007 and it was sold for only 400 million Euros. This is crazy from economic point of view. Selling a company that generates such profit for such price is more than giving it as a present. It was said that the reason was Russian support against Kosovo independence. The reality shows that this is just lost money and valuable asset for nothing. Russia can veto Kosovo in UN as permanent member but not as observer state like Holy See once Kosovo reaches 97 recognitions. In such situation then Russian veto will be totally irrelevant.
    In other side Serbia has two choices. One is to continue EU integration and that means has to recognize Kosovo formally or isolate itself by being (as some say) so called “Russian gubernia”. If Serbia chooses to leave EU integration because of Kosovo and becomes “Russian gubernia” it will lose EU and Kosovo. In such scenario Serbia will lose market in Kosovo which is some 500 million euro annually. That means at least 1.5 to 2 billion euros loss on GDP (multiplication effect), which mean some 5-6% of its total GDP. This is a start of big recession in the state that is already dealing with huge problems and falling into huge debt. This is not the end. If Serbia rejects EU that means no more hundreds of millions of donated money from EU funds and no more some $100 million aid from USA. Who would invest in such state which would fall into deep recession and will collapse for sure? Some would say but Russia would salvage Serbia. But where is that money. Russia promised to Serbia a loan of billion dollars years ago and nobody knows if that many arrived at all in Serbia nor interest rate is known. Certainly Russia can’t salvage Serbia in such scenario because look at their budget expenditures, its less than half of USA budget for ministry of defense. Russians need modernizing of their military. Can they do that salvaging Serbian economy? Not at all.
    That’s why Serbian leaders should be smart enough and less emotional and accept reality. They can’t get back neither entire Kosovo nor any part of it. This is not possible in military aspect because UN SC resolution 1244 is very clear on preventing from NATO military actions of Serbia against Kosovo. In political aspect both Serbia and Russia call for “mutual acceptable solution for Kosovo”, which means they are totally aware that such solution must be acceptable for Pristina. As we all know the only acceptable solution for Pristina is independence of Kosovo. Serbia through Russia is trying to block Kosovo in UN but this is not an obstacle for Kosovo to develop itself and there is very good case to look at. Look at Taiwan, which is considered as Chinese province. Taiwan has GDP per capita four time greater than China and that means four times more developed than China regardless of the fact that Taiwan is formally recognized by only 23 states (none from UN SC) while Kosovo is recognized from 86 UN member states including three permanent members of UN SC.

  2. Milan Milenkovic

    I wont defend any side, but it very harsh to accuse one state like Russia that is using someone for its own interest, simply because it is not Russia who was crucial player during the armed conflicts in the Balkans in the 90s, nor Russia was military involved in the NATO 1999 airstrikes, neither Moscow was responsibile for security situation on Kosovo after 2000. Russian withdravel from Kosovo in 2003 occured as a mixture of loosing interesti in region whose members at that point Serbia as well lost their interest for Russia. This decision to withdraw coincided with the withdrawal of Russian influence from the whole region whose leaders were occupied with the EU and NATO integrations and partnership with the Western states. On the other hand, Russia lost decisive role in its last partner on the Balkan, Serbia, and was engaged with different challenges inside and on its borders, including economic recovery which Balkan did not fit in as a vital region. As Russia was turning its head toward Europe and the USA as key factors for the recovery of its economy and its strategically advancing, so was Serbia under Đinđić. Beside this, Đinđić Government was also looking for improving its relations with the West as a crucial tool for improving its position in the Kosovo issue. But, this pro-Western policy that Serbia was pursuing under Đinđić was violently stopped, by his assassination in March 2003. His successor on a post of a Prime Minister, Koštunica didn’t stop further integrations of the SMN into Euro-Atlantic structures, but immediately after he took his post, it was obvious that the Kosovo issue would deeply shape his next mandates. One of the main reasons for this was the March 2004 violence on Kosovo that triggered the thinking in the USA and the major EU states that Kosovo knot has to be cut by delivering independence for Kosovo. Unfortunately for the new democratic elite of Serbia, Western countries have calculated that greater threat to stability in the region could be outraged Kosovo Albanians, especially after the death of Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate long – standing leader of Kosovo Albanians, rather than the radicalization of political situation in Serbia, since Serbia has already expressed its wishes to join the EU and NATO. Albanians demonstrated that they can destabilize region in armed conflicts in so-called Preševo Valley and in Macedonia in 2001 and during ethnic riots on Kosovo in 2004. It seemed that new pro-European political elite was about to be “punished” for the mistakes of Milošević from the past and because the main focus of major powers that had decisive influence in the region was far more on east – Caucasus, Central Asia and Middle East. Political elite of Serbia was faced with the fact that their main donors and supporters of their reforms and main factors of the organizations they wished to join were at the same time main sponsors of creating the new state inside the borders of recognized Serbia. The strategy of improving and upgrading Serbian relations with those states in order to maintain solid position for the Kosovo issue began to look unrealistic, and lacking some additional element. This new element was Russia, now different and stronger, more confident, and not the same as it was in 1999. Being faced with the fact that Kosovo would easily slide toward independence, Koštunica longed to find some ally in upcoming negotiation process in which he knew he had not much chances unless support in the UN SC was provided. Since the UN SC Resolution 1244 was a guarantee of Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo, estimation was quite clear – Serbia had to get support of permanent members of UN SC that could veto unwanted changes. Once the West “opened its cards” through predictable Ahtisaari behavior and via other channels, and once Serbia showed that there was no such a carrot that it was ready to accept in order to agree to Kosovo independence, Russia became the decisive additional element to the Kosovo puzzle.

    As for the situation for NIS, we also have to keep in mind following facts – not everyone in the Government was in favor of the agreement and the initial signature of the agreement was given by Tadić in order to receive much needed support to win the presidential elections in the eve of Unilateral Declaration of Independence of Kosovo, thus in kind of indirect way, Russia supported pro-European forces in that decisive moment. Also, I can agree that the price of NIS was favorable for Gaspom, and that behind the deal there was much more than pure economic estimations, but we also have to acknowledge that according to estimation of Diloitte and Touche agency in June 2008 NIS value was € 2.2 billion, therefore NIS price for 51% could be maximum € 1.1 billion, plus the estimation was done “in times of peaking oil prices”, so the prices since went down and so did the prices of companies. Also Russian side had to bear NIS debts up to € 10 million and invest additional € 547 million in spite of outcome of economic crisis.
    Facts are that both Russia and Serbia needs EU more than each other, but as long as Serbia keeps preserving of its territorial integrity as its top priority, it is inappropriate to name Russia as someone who is using Serbia, but it can be stated that Russia is using the “situation” that was created by other factors and fact that Serbia invited Moscow in order to change that “situation”, because it was estimated as negative one for the national interests of Serbia. But I would agree that abandoning of European integrations of Belgrade would be a disaster for the future of Serbia.

  3. Serbo-Canadian of Macau

    There are NO “both Serbia AND Kosovo” just as there are no “both Italy AND Tuscany”, “both England AND Cornwall”, “both the US AND Lakotaland” or “both Germany AND Lusatia”.

    As simple as that, Milenković!

  4. Milan Milenkovic

    But in the processes of EU integrations, Serbia and Kosovo are having different tracks i.e. there is no coordination between Belgrade and Priština in processes of EU integration. That was my point.

  5. Pingback : “What is good for Serbia is good for Russia” | Milan D. MIlenković Blog

  6. Pingback : “What is good for Serbia is good for Russia” | Milan D. Milenković Blog

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