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Russian-Serbian relations: Courage with an eye to Trump

Photo: Reuters

During the last months of last year and the first days of the new one, the Balkans again made international headlines leaving behind Syria and Donbass. In the behavior of Serbian leaders – uncompromising statements by Milorad Dodik (Republika Srpska as part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and trenchant statements by Tomislav Nikolic (Serbia), European media as usually saw “Moscow’s hand” bringing matches for “Europe’s tinderbox.” In fact, Serbia’s fuse does not even smolder and the gunpowder is still wet.

Returning twenty years later

The anti-Serbian hysteria that began yet in 1990s has not disappeared. It has just de-escalated certainly against the background of the events in the Arab world, Afghanistan and Ukraine and the current Serbian elite’s external loyalty to the West. However, nothing has changed. Defaming statements by American and European leaders, provocative statements by the leaders and politicians of Yugoslavian young states (except Serbian ones), documentaries and feature films demonizing Serbs, relevant TV and press reports have remained. All this is observed in Europe even more than in U.S. that has recently managed the process shifting foreign policy priorities to other regions.

Seeking a mid-term solution to the Yugoslavian issue, U.S. keeps Serbia as a “whipping boy” promising it European integration and whipping for orthodoxy and traditionally good relations with Russia at the same time. Scapegoating Serbs, U.S. pursues the principle “Divide et Impera” in the region, which makes impossible the revival of the strong country in the Western Balkans uniting the local mostly Slavonic peoples with their own geopolitical ambitions.

Once initiators of the project uniting the Balkans, Serbs are devastated and loyal, while other peoples of the erstwhile united country hate and blame them for all their problems… Russia that distanced itself from the region in 1990s and inherently “blessed” the Yugoslavian tragedy and let the rival to its own borders, has now returned to the Western Balkans. In fat 2000s, Russia was busy calculating its profits from export of oil and gas forgetting about Balkans and other territories, including Ukraine. In 2010s, Russia has gradually declared its priorities in the Balkans.

However, Moscow did not pursue any idealistic goals – it just decided to take advantage of the national myth about the fraternity and unity of the Russian and Serbian peoples – a valuable asset it had been ignoring for long years and noticed just amid efforts to implement the South Stream project. The project did not end well, due to the West’s efforts. But Russia did gain from return to the Balkans, since it has obtained the flagship of the Serbian oil industry - Gazprom holds a 56.15% stake in Oil Industry of Serbia Company with a Russian top manager.

Of course, Serbia too gained from such cooperation after two decades of promises, accusations, reproaches and idle promises from the West and NATO trying to integrate it by some strange methods. Meantime, Russian Railways Company tackled restoration of the decaying railway structure of the country and will supply native diesel trains. The railway stock is modernized on the terms favorable for Serbia: the contract cost is $940 million, of which $800 million is Russia’s state export loan. It may seem that Russia has become closer to Serbia and Balkans: Vladimir Putin personally participated in the military parade in Belgrade timed to the 70th anniversary of liberation from German occupation. Russia promised to supply the Serbian army which is not in good state due to the West, with six MiG-29 fighter jets (Belgrade will be paying only for repair and modernization), thirty tanks T-72C and thirty FSU Wheeled Amphibious Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle on very favorable terms for Serbia. The sides also agreed that Moscow will provide Serbia with air-defense assets so vital for Serbs, suffice it to recall NATO’s aggression.

Besides, in Montenegro they established Cossack troops headed by Ataman (Cossack chieftain of Montenegro) who had participated in the battles for Transnistria and Novorossiya. The Night Wolves, a Russian motorcycle club, have become more active in Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. With the start of Ukraine’s aggression in Donbass, many Serbs joined the fight to protect their brothers like Russian volunteers in Bosnia did at the time. Furthermore, Belgrade refused to join the anti-Russian sanctions of Europe and gained from that again – Serbian fruits, vegetables and dairy products banned from EU were exported to Russia to replace the European products.

Surprise for patriots

It might seem that things could not be better. It is normal that President of Serbia Tomislav Nikolic gave a tough response when the self-appointed administration in Kosovo did not let a train from Belgrade to the territory annexed by separatists. It was one of the trains supplied from Russia that was to reach Macedonia via the territory of the pseudo-republic. “If they start killing Serbs, yes (ready to deploy troops in Kosovo – author’s note). And not just troops, all of us will go there, I will be the first to go there, it is not for the first time.” (Nikolic fought in 90s as part of the Chetnik units).

It is natural that President of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian ethnicity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, refused to change the date of the Republic Day despite the pressure of the West and hysteria of the Bosnian-Croatian and Bosnian-Muslim politicians (they complained that the Republic Day was on the same day with an orthodox holiday and, consequently, the rights of the local Catholics and Muslims were infringed, and that anniversary of the republic was announced a holiday, while on that day the Serbian community BIK voted for establishment of an independent state formation and separated from Yugoslavia). In addition, majority of the residents in Republika Srpska voted for retaining that date at the referendum last September. “We dream of joining our Mother Serbia,” Dodik said pouring oil into the dangerously simmering conflict.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric of Serbian leaders is not yet a reason for optimism. In fact, “entering” Serbia, the leadership of Russia staked on the local moderate liberals – the Serbian Progressive Party, an analogue of the United Russia party adjusted to the local realities - not the patriotic forces. Russia staked on the party seeking integration with the EU and cooperation with NATO, but without loss of the own state and national identity, though these ideas might seem self-contradicting. However, Russia’s policy consists of such contradictions. Suffice it to recall that the offensive of the militia on Mariupol was stopped in favor of “partners” and then a long and bloody “Minsk” processes started – though it is a quite different story. The Balkans have a similar story. For instance, when the Serbian opposition parties – the Democratic Party of Serbia and the Serbian Movement Dveri that recognized the Russian Crimea and consistently opposed integration with EU and NATO unlike the Progressive Party (it run for parliament advocating for such integration) and advocated for rapprochement with Russia took the streets protesting against machinations of the ruling Progressive Party during the parliamentary elections (recall 2011), Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry blamed some foreign NGOs (!) for public disorders. Besides, yet not so long, Russia was for operation of the openly anti-Serbian Hague Tribunal until it threatened Moscow over Crimea. The Russian Embassy representatives did their best to persuade the residents of the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo to participate in the elections for the local Albanian quasi-state formation.

Masters should not be changed

What was behind the flurry of activity of Serbian leaders at the end of 2016 and in the beginning of 2017? Their bold statements seemed impossible yet not so long ago.

Simply, like Russia’s leadership, they hoped for a change of the U.S. policy. Before leaving the political field, Obama’s Administration that prepared a Yugoslavian scenario for Russia did its best to harm Moscow once again. Suffice it to say that the Congress passed a decision to supply weapons to Ukraine. As for the Balkans, the anti-Russian sentiments intensified there prior to elections in the United States: in Montenegro, a “plot” involving Serbian and Russian citizens allegedly trying to overthrow the pro-Western leadership of the country was revealed. Once in terrorist hideouts, the separatist intelligence of Kosovo allegedly exposed a spy network of Russia in the territory of the region. Besides, Russia’s ally Milorad Dodik faced American sanctions.

However, there is new president in U.S. and Moscow’s elite that spent billions on U.S. bonds even amid instable economic situation in Russia pins great hopes with the new administration. Similar sentiments are in Serbia where they remember Trump’s words on Larry King’s TV show: “The Clintons have made a mess in the Balkans and Kosovo. Look what we did to Serbia in an aerial bombardment from a safe height. Those same Serbs rescued American pilots in World War II.

It is a mistake that we bombed a nation that has been our ally in two world wars. The Clintons believe that was a success, and I find it shameful. I extend an apology to all the Serbs for the error of American policy, primarily Clinton’s. We need allies in fight against Islamic terrorism who have combat experience fighting this evil - and that in Europe are the Russians and the Serbs. If I become the head of America the foreign policy will change the course that has until now often been wrong."

Trumpophilia penetrated into Serbia too. If Russia’s patrons let the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics respond to fires by Ukraine’s Armed Forces, why shouldn’t Serbs be let some freedoms? The policy looking out for the United States is a policy of a secondary state having no right to its own position on the world arena. Secondary states inherently have no right to serious independent steps.

Aleksey Toporov for EADaily

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