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There’s One Country in Europe Where Putin Is a Rock Star
The Russian president’s visit to Serbia was a lovefest—but beyond the odes to Orthodox brotherhood, the two authoritarian leaders are using one another to advance a geopolitical agenda.
For days before Vladimir Putin’s first foreign trip of 2019, the press in Serbia were already giving wall-to-wall coverage to the Russian president’s one-day visit to Belgrade. From the possible meal options—including a traditional local brandy named after Putin—to the furry shepherd dog Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic planned to give to his Russian counterpart in Belgrade, a carnival-like celebration was underway even before Putin landed on Jan. 17.
There aren’t many places in Europe where a Putin visit would be cause for such euphoria at a moment when most leaders on the continent eye the Russian leader with a mix of suspicion and contempt. “Dear President, I want you to feel good in Serbia,” Vucic said at a press conference soon after Putin’s arrival. “There are a lot of people waiting for you in the streets. All those people … they didn’t come for me. They came for you.”
Tens of thousands of people paraded through central Belgrade during the day, amassing in front of the towering Church of Saint Sava—dedicated to the founder of the Serbian branch of Eastern Orthodoxy—toward the end of the trip, where Putin ceremoniously placed the final three squares, in the color of the Russian flag, on a mosaic for the soon-to-be-completed church, having pledged an additional 5 million euros (about $5.7 million) for the job earlier that day.
Putin’s visit is part of the Serbian president’s carefully crafted public image in the country, an image backed by an army of loyal tabloids, which were quick to declare the day one of the biggest gatherings of Serbs in history. But the spectacle on display in Belgrade last Thursday was more than that. Behind the crowds and chants of Putin’s name, it was a spectacle of two autocratic leaders taking advantage of each other, despite their professed friendship, for their own geopolitical games.
For the openly pro-Putin Vucic, the picture is more complicated than it seems. For all his bluster and symbolic overtures toward Putin and Russia, Vucic’s policies are ultimately aimed at the Balkan country’s integration into the European Union—something that gets glossed over every time he and Putin get together.
“Serbian society is traditionally pro-Russian,” the historian Milan Radanovic said. “This makes us very different from the majority of Europe, especially neighboring states, even those who were subject to a much firmer Russian embrace throughout history.” Radanovic explained that although Vucic’s political orientation is toward Western Europe, “it doesn’t suit Vucic and his regime to be presented as a man of the West.”
The country is still nursing the wounds of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that aimed to end Serbia’s brutal clampdown on the Albanian-majority population in Kosovo, its former southern province. Kosovo has since declared independence and is seeking full international recognition with strong support from the United States, NATO, and the EU. It’s tricky, though, because not only was Kosovo part of Serbia for most of the 20th century, but it is also home to the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church and countless medieval monasteries.
This is why Putin has such appeal in Serbia. Russia was a major opponent of the bombing in 1999; since then, it has played a significant role in the curtailing of Kosovo’s full international recognition, both through diplomatic efforts and Moscow’s veto in the United Nations Security Council, the approval of which would be necessary for Kosovo to become a full member of the international community.
“For a public which is skeptical toward the EU and the United States,” Radanovic said, Serbia’s leader “can’t be seen as someone who just promotes the political interests of the West.” The Serbian president has often been described by the international press as “sitting on two chairs,” something local observers would describe as a conscious effort on his part.
Vucic, explained Florian Bieber, a Foreign Policy contributor and professor of Southeast European history and politics at the University of Graz in Austria, “can use this to put pressure on the EU to remind them of an alternative [path for Serbia], however implausible it is.” The Serbian leader, who has asserted increasing control over the country’s media and is fierce when reacting to any criticism of his policies that weaken his control over public opinion—the country dropped 10 spots in the Reporters Without Borders index last year—hopes to improve his bargaining position with the EU if he can remind it, every now and then, that he’s got Putin on his side.
“While pro-Russian views of course predate his rule, they have been strongly encouraged by the media loyal to Vucic and his strong pro-Russian rhetoric. This also creates more maneuvering space for him in Serbia,” Bieber explained. Serbia was the only country in the region not to participate in European sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Considering the current climate in the EU, where Brexit and the continuing rise of the populist right uses up much of the oxygen in Brussels, expansion is far from the union’s top priority. The European Commission said there would be no new members joining until 2025, and even then it is much more likely it will be Serbia’s neighbor, Montenegro—a NATO member that has already been the target of a suspected Russian coup plot in 2016. So far, the Montenegrin leader, Milo Djukanovic, has managed to keep the pro-Russian sentiments among the opposition at bay.
All those in the Balkans who do foster a soft spot for Putin and Russia came to Belgrade last Thursday. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s rotating tripartite presidency, and his deputy Zeljka Cvijanovic, the prime minister of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated region Republika Srpska, had a short sit-down with Putin. Two representatives from Montenegro’s opposition Democratic Front party, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, also came for a chat with the Russian leader. The pro-Russian party is suspected of being part of the attempted coup in the country that was allegedly instigated by Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU.
But Russia also has a soft spot for Serbia, said Dimitar Bechev, a political scientist and analyst of Balkan-Russian affairs. Russia sees Serbia as a fellow victim of the West, he argued. “Serbia is seen as a smaller Russia, but with no nuclear weapons to defend itself, and as having been preyed on by NATO,” Bechev said.
Putin’s interest in Serbia, besides maintaining a symbolic Balkan foothold, also rests on the fact that he has a personal stake in the way the Kosovo issue will ultimately be resolved. After all, Putin has expansionist interests in the Russian near abroad that he is keen to someday present as legal in the eyes of the international community, whether in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine under the control of Russian-led proxies since 2014.
“If the Kosovars have the right to self-determination, why should people on Crimea not have it?” Putin commented in 2016, ignoring that fact the Crimean separation referendum is seen as an illegitimate farce by the international community. If Kosovo has its way, Putin might not like it, but the example would be a useful one for him. Indeed, Putin continues to be more than happy to use the Kosovo precedent, a Western pet project, against the West itself, having declared at the time of Kosovo’s independence in 2008 that it would “come back and hit them in the face.”
But the current tone of Serbia’s relationship with Russia might have long-term consequences on the postwar transition in the region. On Jan. 17, Vucic reiterated his gratitude for Russia’s blocking of a Security Council resolution that would see the U.N. formally designate the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina a genocide—even though the U.S. Congress, European Parliament, and International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have already defined it as such. The move was warmly welcomed by those in Serbian society who feel that the brunt of the blame for the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which saw more than 100,000 casualties and involved Serbian, Croat, and Bosnian Muslim combatants, is placed solely and in their view unfairly on the shoulders of Serbia and Bosnian Serbs.
With the increased interest of the U.S. press on unveiling the extent of President Donald Trump’s involvement with the Russian government both in the lead-up to his presidency and afterward—alongside high-profile instances of Russian meddling in Western Europe—there is a tendency to interpret any Russian presence in the region as a concerted effort to completely pull countries like Serbia off their European integration paths and into Moscow’s sphere of influence.
But Putin’s success in the region, added Bieber, is based more on the weakness of the EU and the United States and less on any particular strengths or skills displayed by the Russian leader. Putin’s influence in the region is only as strong as local leaders allow. “He is playing his limited resources, energy, and symbolic emotional support well, but there is little on offer,” Bieber said. “As his main interest appears to be to limit NATO and EU success, he does not need to offer an alternative or have a coherent strategy beyond disruption.”