Janusz Bugajski, 20 January 2019
President Vladimir Putin’s triumphal visit to Belgrade was intended to consolidate Russia’s position in the Balkans.Serbia and Russia do not have a close alliance but an asymmetric coupling in which the Kremlin exploits its dominance and treats Belgrade as a useful surrogate. Pressure mounts when Moscow needs Serbia to fulfill certain international tasks to Russia’s advantage, as evident in the current push toward Kosova’s partition.
During the wars in the 1990s, Belgrade appealed to Russian solidarity whether over preserving Yugoslav integrity, creating a Greater Serbia, or retaining control over Kosova. Moscow manipulated Serbia’s grievances against the US and NATO to demonstrate that Russia remained a major factor in European affairs. Since the ouster of Milosevic, Serbian governments have intensified their role as Russia’s junior partners, enabling Putin to transform Serbia into Moscow’s outpost in the Western Balkans.
Putin’s agenda in Belgrade consisted of three prongs.First, hesought to consolidate Serbia’s nationalist sentiments and resistance to the West. Through its numerous propaganda weapons, Moscow makes sure that anti-NATO sentiments are constantly nurtured among the Serb public. In Belgrade,Putinattacked the US for allegedly destabilizing the Balkans by imposing its “dominant role in the region” and berated NATO enlargement for increasing tensions in Europe.
In his second prong, Putin sought to demonstrate how bilateral ties are being strengthened in various domains. A series of agreements focused on upgrading Serbia’s military capabilities and the use of atomic energy for “peaceful purposes.”Belgrade already supplies Serbia with military hardware and operates a “Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center” near Nis, which Russian services use as an intelligence gathering facility vis-à-vis the West.
Putin and Vucic also prepared an agreement for a free-trade zone between Serbia and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, to be signed later this year, and an extension of the TurkStream gas pipeline. Media in both countries persistently broadcast disinformation that Russia is Serbia’s main economic benefactor, even though its trade and investment is dwarfed by the EU and is based on opaque deals that benefit corrupt politicians. Serbia has already surrenderedtoGazprom majority shares in its major oil and gas company, NiS, and entered into other deals that tie the country tightly with Russia’s energy supplies.
In the third and newest prong, Putin is seeking to benefit from the debate over Kosova’s potential partition. Moscow’s strategists are pursuing two primary objectives. First, border changes in the Balkans approved by Western powers can be trumpeted as a valuable precedent for Crimea, Donbas, Transnistria, and other regions coveted by Russia. Officials can contend that changes in the Kosova-Serbia border simply bring co-ethnics into the motherland. Hence, a similar process can be applied to territories with sizeable Russian populations, including parts of Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Kazakhstan.
Second, the Kremlin calculates that border changes in the Balkans can create havoc for NATO and the EU by stimulating calls for further partitions. Local nationalists could orchestrate violence to demonstrate that ethnic co-existence is not feasible and borders have to be adjusted. A ripple effect of territorial aspirations would not only affect unsettled states such as Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia, but also embroil NATO members Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro.
Putin’s visit raised expectations in Serbia that Moscow would help Belgrade win its dispute with Kosova. Moscow will push for the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue to be moved from under the umbrella of the EU to the UN Security Council where Russia exerts veto power. Here it can endorse the kind of partition precedent that could serve Kremlin interests inside and outside the Balkans.
A partition plan that would allow Serbia to annex Kosova’s northern municipalities could be sold as a victory for Serbia. However, the unilateral partition of Kosovais unacceptable to Prishtina, hence President Hashim Thaçi proposed a land swap involving the Preshevo Valley that is resisted by Belgrade.
Moscow may seek to pacify Serbian nationalist opposition to any acceptance of Kosova’s status by not only promoting partition but also by raising other aspirations. It can express support for the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia’s incorporation of Republika Srpska (RS). This would be a bigger prize than the northern fringes of Kosova, particularly as RS leaders yearn to join Serbia.
The result of Moscow’s deepening intervention will be to embroil the Aleksandar Vucic government in a new conflict with the EU, NATO, and the US over Bosnia-Herzegovina. This will also serve Kremlin interests by blocking Belgrade’s path toward EU accession. The lesson for Serbia is that unless it breaks free from Russia’s suffocating grip, it cannot achieve its national potential and will be consistently exploited as a pawn in Putin’s campaign to disarm and dismantle the West.